The Ethics of Running a Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn for a prize. The games are run by state governments. The prize money can be anything from cash to goods or services. Many states have lotteries to raise money for public projects. The Huffington Post reports that the first public buildings on some of America’s most prestigious campuses were funded by lottery proceeds, as was much of Columbia University. But there are questions about the ethics of running a lottery. It’s basically a business, and its purpose is to persuade people to spend their money on it. That’s at cross-purposes with the larger public interest, and it raises ethical concerns.

Most states have lotteries, with 44 of them (plus the District of Columbia) offering Powerball and Mega Millions. New Hampshire started the first state lottery in 1964; others followed suit based on its experience and success. In general, the process is similar: a state legislates a monopoly; establishes a state agency or public corporation to run it; starts with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, because of continuous pressure for revenues, progressively expands its offerings.

In the case of the state lotteries, that expansion carries with it a message that even though the odds of winning are low, you should still play because it will benefit the state. That message obscures the regressivity of lottery revenue and plays into a myth that all gambling is good.